Saturday 21 February 2015

Wake Up to Wildlife and Other Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

Quick shot through the windscreen but sets the scene well.
Before embarking on this trip, Will and I agreed that what we wanted to see in Yellowstone was wolves. I mean, who wouldn't? Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone twenty years ago so they must be everywhere by now right? Wrong. On our first afternoon, driving ourselves around, we saw a whole slew of people sitting by the road with their spotter scopes out (wildlife watching tip #1 - if you see a bunch of people stopped by the side of the road, stop and see what they're looking at, it's probably worth it). We got out, sidled up and nonchalantly started a conversation and were offered a look through the spotting scope. They were really excited. It was a wolf. It was lying down in the snow. It was 5 miles (8 kilometres) away. Even through the spotting scope I could have been looking at a rock or a log in the snow, I really wasn't sure I was even looking at the right grey splot. And there were about 15 people who had been sitting for a good forty five minutes, in the snow, watching this wolf through their scopes.

So we adjusted our expectations. Accepted that we probably wouldn't see a wolf, but that the bison and the elk and the pronghorn were really cool, and maybe if we were lucky we would see moose and big horn sheep. So you know where this is going right? Yes, we saw wolves, real, live, eat your legs off wolves!

Lone wolf howl
We had booked into an early morning game drive so we got up at the crack of stupid, put on all of our clothes (all of them) and loaded ourselves into a bus with some other people crazy enough to get up that early and put on all of their clothes and load onto a bus. Our driver was a guy called Ricky who told us his Yellowstone conversion story, having visited as a tourist and then packed in his entire life in New York to come and work at Yellowstone and take photos. We're driving along in the semi-dark and we're not seeing anything, not a bison, not a bird, nothing. I'm starting to get a little discouraged and I suspect Ricky is too because we ended up stopping for a herd of bison, which as I've mentioned are pretty common. We all load obediently out of the bus though and are taking some photos when Ricky pulls himself up and says 'Do you hear that?' We all went silent. Then we heard it, a long, plaintive howl. Some primal, early evolutionary part of my brain, possibly the amygdala, started running around in small, panicked circles. We turned to face the hill behind us and there he was. Not really close, I still had to use the zoom on my camera and even then my shots were pretty far off, but actually visible to the naked eye and definitely coming closer. Ricky explained that the howl was a 'lone wolf' howl. Sometimes wolves in a pack lose their alpha male and then the next wolf in line moves up. Here's the thing though, if that new alpha is related to the females, they know they shouldn't mate (smarter than some humans then) so the male heads off to find a new pack. They communicate to potential new packs using a particular howl. Sure enough, after he's been howling for a little while a pack of half a dozen or so other wolves come down the hill from the other direction. Now these ones are really far off. I can just see them through my zoom lens. But still! Wolves! Lots of wolves! Even Ricky said he'd never seen wolves so close.

While the wolf came 'close' he was still a long way off and it was quite dark but I was excited to get a photo at all! - Will

We ended up seeing lots of different animals on that tour, including big horned sheep which, despite their creepy, evil goat eyes, are pretty darn cool. We had also been driving ourselves around the day before and seen some awesome things, like a huge bull elk. Then someone on the tour explained that since the snow was so deep in the park that year a lot of the ungulates (a term that generally means hoofed animals - but I had to look it up) had headed out of the park, so that afternoon, we headed out of the park too and saw where all the deer and elk and pronghorn and the big horned sheep were hanging out. Saw a pretty sweet little woodpecker too. I'm not going to tell you all about this, you can just look at the photos.

Note: You can click on any of the photos to get a pop-out slide show.

Bull elk part of a large herd just outside the park entrance
Bald Eagle in flight
Big bull elk
Young bison
Large male bison
Sometimes the conditions are less than hospitable for the bison and photographer
Bison herd near the park north entrance
Big horn sheep
Big horn sheep often gather in herds
Herd of mule deer
This is not actually the push-me pull-you from Dr Dolittle but two exquisitely posed pronghorns
Downy Woodpecker

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